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Jury Returns $1.97 Million Verdict in Gynecological Surgery Malpractice Case

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In Zawatski v. Valenta (C.P. Luzerne Co., April 19, 2011, No. 10804-2006), a Pennsylvania jury has determined that a gynecologist’s carelessness was a substantial factor in a woman’s death from ovarian cancer. The case, originally filed in 2006, was tried to a jury in Luzerne County over a six-day period. The 12-member jury deliberated for less than two hours before returning with a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of $1,967,200.00.

What Happened to Sharon Zawatski?

Sharon Zawatski had a large pelvic cyst in July of 2004. She went to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center’s emergency department and the defendant, Dr. George Valenta, performed surgery. After determining that the cyst was cancerous, Dr. Valenta performed a total hysterectomy and bilateral (both sides) salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of both ovaries and tubes). Or at least that’s what he said he’d done.

In fact, the defendant doctor had encountered some trouble in the surgery. He ruptured the cyst and its contents spilled into Ms. Zawatski’s pelvic region. This fact was not recorded in Dr. Valenta’s first or second operative reports, according to papers filed with the Court. Indeed, the cyst rupture was not revealed until the surgeon filed a third operative report, more than a week after the operation.

Further complicating matters, the documentation of the surgery failed to confirm that the left ovary and fallopian tube had been removed. Indeed, the surgical pathologist (Dr. William Michalak) noted that the specimens submitted by the surgeon did NOT include the left ovary or tube, according to courthouse papers.

Despite the apparent confusion about whether the left ovary and tube were removed, Ms. Zawatski was released from the hospital. Ms. Zawatski believed that both ovaries and tubes had been removed and that she did not need chemotherapy.

Ms. Zawatski followed up with her surgeon, the defendant Dr. Valenta, but was never told that the left ovary or fallopian tube were not found or examined, the plaintiff contended. Indeed, there was evidence that Dr. Valenta himself doubted that the left ovary and tube had been removed. Dr. Valenta apparently ordered an ultrasound examination and plaintiff’s oncology expert Richard Penson testified that the only purpose for such an exam would have been to look for the left ovary and fallopian tube. However, after waiting weeks to respond to communications about the ultrasound, Dr. Valenta decided to call if off, saying it wasn’t necessary.

Predictably, Ms. Zawatski was diagnosed within a year of her surgery with a recurrence of her ovarian cancer. Plaintiff’s experts Burton Marks and Gabriel Levy identified the cancer as being in the left ovary, the ovary that had supposedly been removed by Dr. Valenta in the 2004 surgery.

Ms. Zawatski died from her cancer on June 16, 2008. Papers filed at the Courthouse demonstrate that the forensic pathologist who performed her autopsy, Dr. Gerard Catanese, found her left fallopian tube, the same tube that Dr. Valenta claimed he’d removed four years earlier.

The Defendant Doctor Denies Everything

The defense, of course, conceded nothing. The ruptured pelvic cyst was just one of those unfortunate things that sometimes happen, the defense claimed. The confusion about whether the left fallopian tube and ovary had been removed was a red herring. The ultrasound that suggested Dr. Valenta knew he’d missed the left ovary and tube? That “was not and should not have been an issue,” according to Dr. Valenta’s lawyer. The left fallopian tube found on autopsy was a mistake. The forensic pathologist had, the defendant maintained, mixed up the ureter and the fallopian tube. The defense called the plaintiff’s case “fanciful” and “ridiculous,” according to a report in the Personal Injury Reporter. Even after the verdict, the defense has filed post-trial motions and promises “to do better in the appeal.”

The Verdict

For Ms. Zawatski’s family, the jury’s verdict was no doubt a long time coming. They fought through five years of litigation, begun when Ms. Zawatski was still alive and concluded three long years after her death. From the beginning, the defendant doctor denied responsibility and blamed others for making mistakes. The defendant and his lawyers are still not ready to accept responsibility, but even if they find a loophole on appeal (and they’ll look high and low, naturally), the jury in Luzerne County has offered the Zawatski family some vindication. Answers and responsibility have been assigned by 12 citizens who heard the evidence and who saw the witnesses firsthand. Congratulations to Atty. David Selingo of Kingston, PA, who tried the case for the plaintiff.

Contact a Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Lawyer Today

If you or a loved one has suffered because of a surgical error, you should contact an experienced Erie medical malpractice lawyer. The Erie surgical mistake attorneys at Purchase, George & Murphey, P.C. have experience in the investigation, preparation, and trial of complicated medical cases and want to help. Call today for a free evaluation of your case at 814-580-5017 or toll free at 877-505-9548, or use our contact form.

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